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Rise in nurse vacancy rate in England prompts fresh warnings

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Nursing vacancies in England now account for almost four in 10 unfilled posts across the NHS, new figures reveal.

The nursing vacancy rate in England rose 17% between April and June this year, compared to the previous quarter, and 9% from the same point last year, according to figures released by NHS Improvement.

“It’s worrying that this problem is getting worse rather than better”

Chris Hopson

The vacancy rate for nurses was 11.8% in the first quarter of 2018-19, up from 10.2% in the last quarter of 2017-18, stated the regulator in a report on NHS performance across a range of areas.

In total, there were 41,722 nursing vacancies in the NHS compared to 35,794 in the fourth quarter of 2017-18. It means that nursing vacancies accounted for 38.7% of all NHS vacancies compared to 35.7% a year ago.

The figures show that trusts employed over 310,000 nurses, on top of which there were over 41,000 vacancies, of which 80% were filled by a combination of bank staff (64%) and agency staff (36%).

There was significant regional and sector variation. The highest regional vacancy rate for nurses is London on 14.8%. Mental health was generally the sector with the highest vacancy rate.

However, the highest nursing vacancy rate taking into account both region and sector was for ambulance staff in the North, at 31.2%, followed by specialist nurses in the South, at 22.8%.

“It’s a real concern that these figures have shown such a big increase in vacancy levels”

Chris Hopson

The highest number of vacancies in absolute terms by region and sector was for acute nurses in London, where there were 9,099 vacancies.

The increase in vacancies since the fourth quarter of 2017-18 was the result of increasing demand and higher leaver rates, said NHS Improvement.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts were doing all they could to cope with increasing demand, workforce shortages and pressure on NHS finances.

“Trusts tell us they are most worried about the workforce shortages they face, and it’s a real concern that these figures have shown such a big increase in vacancy levels,” he said.

“It’s worrying that this problem is getting worse rather than better,” said Mr Hopson.

Tom Sandford, director of the Royal College of Nursing in England, described the figures as “shocking”.

Tom Sandford

Tom Sandford

Tom Sandford

“The nursing vacancy figures are stark – vacancy rates are up 17% to 41,722 since the previous quarter, and 9% from the same point last year,” said Mr Sandford.

He urged the government to immediately investigate the spike in vacancies. “It highlights yet again the need for a comprehensive workforce plan that responds to population need and ensures we have the right number of nurses to provide safe and effective patient care in England,” he said.

The figures relating to NHS finances were also of grave concern, noted Mr Sandford. “With winter fast approaching, these shocking figures betray the perilous state of NHS finances in England,” he said.

He added: “An underlying deficit of £4.3bn, driven in part by reliance on expensive agency staff, does not point to a robust or resilient health service.”

sara gorton for index

sara gorton for index

Sara Gorton

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: “These figures show the impact of a decade of pay restraint and disinvestment in the workforce.

“Brexit and the abolition of the student bursary have had a huge impact on the supply of registered staff into the NHS, and government plans for new training routes have so far failed to deliver enough new people to fill these jobs,” she added.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • How much would it have cost to keep the bursaries and thus encourage more student nurses, compared with the cost to each hospital for bank/agency staff??

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  • Brexit is brexit...someone said. Brexit is also this. Good luck England. It is sad.

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